The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Then and Now

In the days since the Universal Horror Boom of the 1930s, filmmakers have been competing amongst themselves to see who can scare us most effectively, who can make a film that will live in our minds long after we’ve seen it and keep us talking for years, a film that will disturb our sleep and make us afraid to ever put ourselves in a situation similar to its characters.

In all the years of horror filmmakers there have been few films that have lived up to that goal so memorably as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the infamous 1974 slasher classic directed by Tobe Hooper and starring Gunnar Hannsen as the chainsaw wielding Leatherface. In 2003, director Marcus Nispel and producer Michael Bay set out to remake this classic, and in the process created an all new horror classic with a completely different style and sensibility. This article is an attempt to point out the similarities between the films, as well as what makes each of them great stand alone films. But if you haven’t seen the movies, don’t read this. I wouldn’t want you to know what happens and thus not be scared.

The original film opens with a brief narration by John Laroquette as his words scroll over the screen. Laroquette’s deep voice and foreboding tone set you up for the nightmare that is to come, then we are greeted by complete blackness, and suddenly the bizarre sound of a camera shooting and letting light onto a corpse. Shot after shot flashes out in complete darkness of rotting hands and teeth, and then the camera fades in and pulls back on a bizarre putrid corpse arranged on a tombstone, and suddenly we shoot into the opening titles projected over grainy red shots of the sun as it shoots flame from its edges, revealing to us one of the overwhelming elements of the film: heat.

The film was shot in the summer of 1973, and the high exposure of Hooper’s camera makes the light look like a spaghetti western, providing a deeply searing portrayal of Texas summer. The film then opens on a close up of a dead armadillo, and then we are in a van where five friends-Sally (Marilyn Burns), Franklin (Paul Partain), Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Terri McMinnas)- are going to check on relatives graves in a cemetery where grave robbing and desecration has recently been a problem.

They visit the cemetery without incident, and then pick up a hitchhiking young man (Edwin Neal) on the road. The man is obviously crazy, and begins to babble on about slaughterhouses (they have recently driven past one) and how his brother makes good headcheese. He strikes up a conversation with the wheelchair bound Franklin and we see a preoccupation with death and blood between the two of them.

Franklin is playing with his pocketknife, and the young man takes it from him and cuts deep into his hand. Everyone groans and screams except him, who is smiling. After the group refuses to pay for a picture he has taken of Franklin, the hitchhiker torches the picture, cuts Franklin with a straight razor and leaps from the car, marking it with blood as he runs alongside. Now we’re playing for keeps. Before we had seen strange things, but now they are hurting us, so now we are beyond disturbed, we have become afraid.

The group shakes it off and stops at a roadside gas station and barbecue joint to ask directions to a relative’s old house, and everything seems fine. They arrive at a creepy old house moment later, and here we notice that Hooper is subtly slipping in little bits of creepiness even when the atmosphere is happy.

The kids are exploring the old house and laughing, but a short close up of a nest of scurrying daddy long legs spiders. Franklin is whining because he can’t get through the house alone, and we begin to dislike his character even more, showing powerful character development even in a horror film. Another short moment of creepiness is revealed when Franklin notices a little bone ornament hanging from the doorway in the house.

Kirk and Pam take off to find a swimming hole, and instead stumble onto another house surrounded by old corrals and cars hidden under sheds and nets, as well as scans and broken watches and all sorts of other oddities. Once again, the heat pulsates on screen with unbelievable brilliance. Kirk wonders in the house and as he reaches the steel door by the stairs it flies open and a man in a mask and apron smacks him in the head with a hammer, drags his twitching body into the room and slams the door.

That is how death comes, swiftly, without drama, the way it comes in real life. One by one the others wonder into the house and each meets their end in their own way. Pam finds a roomful of feathers and bones before being dropped onto a meat hook by the killer, Jerry finds the kitchen and Pam’s twitching body before being sliced open with a chain saw, and then Franklin and Sally are left alone.

As night falls they are still searching for their friends when they are found in the woods by the killer who slices into Franklin and begins to chase Sally. She returns to the barbecue joint, only to discover that the man who runs it is in cahoots with the masked madman. He takes her back to the house of horrors, where she is treated to a horrific dinner, tied to a chair next to the hitchhiker and the chainsaw killer, as well as a corpse like grandfather who is barely living. Sally fights her way out and jumps in the back of a truck, leaving the killer to thrash his chainsaw around in the rising sun.

The original film is a masterpiece of psychological horror. Despite its reputation as one of the most gruesome films ever made, there is almost no blood. We see it when the cuts are made in the van, but only in minute quantities, and we see that Sally is covered with it at the end but only because she has been made so by running through the thorn covered woods.

The killings offer almost no gore, even when the victims are on a meat hook, and yet it is shot so well that you can imagine it. The films light contrasts from hot sunny day to yellow evening to blue night is the stuff of expert cinematography (filmed by Daniel Pearl). The camera does most everything in wide shot, at least until we see all the little artifacts of death. Watch the film and you will detect numerous close ups of skulls and bones, especially when Pam is in the house.

Other than that, only in the most heated moments does the camera push too far in or move rapidly, making for great suspenseful composition. The smooth dolly shots of people walking through the woods lull us into contentment until the next murder, when we are thrown off guard and shot into fear once more. The killer, Leatherface, is never seen without his mask of human skin.

His childlike demeanor makes him even more mysterious, because we wonder how a psyche so fragile could produce such a powerful evil. The film is horrific in its portrayal of what’s been called “a whole family of Ed Geins”, and the last twenty minutes are almost unending chaos that we are begging to escape from, provoking such an unbelievable nightmare in our heads and creating such a visceral response that when the film ends you are left with just one question: WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST SEE?

The remake is a film equally adept at scaring us, but for different reasons. This film is about five friends- Erin (Jessica Biel), Kemper (Eric Balfour), Morgan (Jonathan Tucker), Andy (Mike Vogel), and Pepper (Erica Leehrsen)- on their way to see a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. The film opens with gritty black and white footage of police going through the gruesome contents of a house as John Laroquette reprises his role as narrator. It is made clear that this is an homage to the original film, taking a step further by showing us the aftermath of what’s to come.

Then we are in the car with the kids, who are laughing, joking, and smoking weed until they pick up a young girl on the roadside who seems to be in shock. She says nothing but that they’re all going to die, then pulls a gun from between her legs and fires a shot into her mouth. The nightmare has already begun. After a panicked moment of screaming and tears, they decide to do the right thing, ditch their weed, and call the police.

They go into a local town and meet a strange old woman in a barbecue joint who gives them a phone. They go to meet the sheriff at an old factory, and there they find a young boy hiding amongst it ruins called Jedediah. Once again, they talk about the dead body and the blood, dwelling on death in a more extreme way than the old film. Jedediah tells them they can go to the Sheriff’s house to get him because it isn’t far, and Erin and Kemper go.

At the house they find a wheelchair bound, legless, disgusting old man who lets them use the phone, and as they are there we see that someone is watching them. Back at the factory the sheriff (R. Lee Ermey) shows up and gets rid of the body, all the while taunting them with his disgusting banter. Erin is trying to help the man get back in his wheelchair while Kemper is wondering around in the house. He sees a piglet walking around, then discovers a broken ornament on the floor.

He slides open a door where cartoons are on TV and suddenly Leatherface appears, strikes him with a hammer, and yanks him away. Erin goes to investigate the noise and finds nothing, then leaves to return to the mill. After this, once again they one by one wonder into the house and die in their own way until Pepper and Erin only remain. Leatherface tracks them down and kills Pepper and Erin runs for help and is sucked into the house once more, only to find that the wheelchair man, the old woman, and the sheriff are all a part of this demented family, and Leatherface is their disfigured son. In the end, she escapes by stealing the sheriff’s car after a lengthy and suspenseful chase through an old slaughterhouse.

This film is a tremendous exercise in suspense, balancing out the levels of calm and terror with masterful precision. But unlike the first film, this one pours on the gore. We see rotting body parts in plenty, as well as legs and arms being hacked off as Leatherface goes through his butchery. Leatherface is also approached differently, as a misunderstood child with a skin condition who only wants acceptance. We see much more of him in this film, but it doesn’t make him any less frightening.

As for the friends, we are given subplots to their characters rather than just putting them through the nightmare. Hooper allowed the characters to be filled out by their situation, whereas Nispel uses what has come before to give the characters relation to one another. The camerawork is masterful, but much more action-like than the original. We see much more close work, much more dolly and crane work, as well as a few well-constructed minicam, steadicam, and digital shots.

As for the setting, the house is even more creepy, but it seems as though it may have been pushed so far that it isn’t novel anymore. Also, it doesn’t have the contrast of the first film. The colors stay the same throughout the whole film, and the nightmare of the ending is the same as that of the beginning, which isn’t bad, just a different approach to making the film. Overall, the film is indeed nightmarishly gruesome and wonderfully scary, making it a worthy successor to the original.

The main difference between the two films is how the freakish events of the story are treated. In the original, the camera follows the events unflinchingly, not caring what it is showing, just filming. The violence is treated so callously that we can’t believe we are seeing it. All the bones and skin and bizarre artifacts in the house are simply there, before us, without having to dwell on them.

The filmmaker’s don’t pay attention to them; they just put them there as though they were decorations in the house. In that respect, the filmmakers seem as sick as the killers, and so we are very afraid. But in the second film, the bizarre surroundings seem to be called attention to. It seems like we are forced to see them, like they were put there for the purpose of scaring us; therefore it isn’t quite as effective.

Overall, both films are definitely must-sees for horror buffs, and the original is a must see for anyone interested in great cinema. As a concept, as a state of mind, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre will always live on as an infamous nightmare of cinematic fear, and it will always live in our minds as one of the scariest experiences ever. As for the movies, they too will always be there, scaring us out of our minds, and every time we hear the roaring grind of a chainsaw starting, we will be ready to run.

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